Case Study #1: “Reconsidering Blackboard Learn outside of “Victimhood” Narratives: Spinnuzi, Genre Theory, and the Reclamation of the LMS Space”

In Clay Spinuzzi’s 2003 Tracing Genres Through Organizations, the author argues against interpretations of user experience according to the narrative of “victimhood,” of the user as beset upon by the networks of genre-related communication which oppress the inherent will towards creative or unique solutions (13), resulting in a view of the networked whole as a collection of “barriers” to efficient production through over- or mis-management.

What Spinuzzi is fighting is the stereotyping of how users engage with systems, crashing against the unfeeling systems placed by designers and administrators.  This is challenging to me, because I want to study Blackboard Learn as a locus of user experience.  Blackboard Learn is a stereotype.  It’s a shorthand for “how to do a bad thing poorly while completely disregarding users and their experiences.”  The narrative shorthand of the Blackboard user is one of abbreviated (or negligible) agency.

This raises an interesting challenge, because it’s difficult to define the object of Blackboard Learn in any language which isn’t adversarial, or at least victim-based.  However, Spinuzzi does offer a view towards a more concomitant or parallel analysis of the segmented hierarchy of Blackboard use through his three levels of scope (30-34).  Moving between contextual/organizational, goal-oriented/conscious, and reflexive/habitual operationality and forms of genre, the researcher can obtain a more gestalt, holistic view of the functional apparatuses of knowledge which function to construct the overall mechanism (“network?”) of BBL.

Figure 1: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a corporate network influencing users through feedback and feature implementation
Figure 1: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a corporate network influencing users through feedback and feature implementation.  This model might be seen to accentuate the removal of agency the further into the hierarchic structure of BBL one transits (i.e., the more like a student user one becomes.)  This model also emphasizes the notion of blackboard as deliverable product for schools and administrators.

What is a node in this model?  Do nodes exist at each layer of operationality, with edges existing laterally between users and sites, and vertically between layers according to directional relations of context, content development, and authority (see Figure 1)?  Are nodes institutionally-situated, with each organization functioning as a scale-model network of the overall BBL object, and each department, instructor, class, and student existing as a subnetwork of that form (see Figure 2)?

Figure 2: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a network of sub-networked situated contexts, which plow through institutions from a central node of BBL service. This model might be seen to emphasize the inter-relationality and parallel structures of the many discrete subgroups of institutions, instructors, departments, classes, and students as products within the BBL service.
Figure 2: Representation of Blackboard Learn as a network of sub-networked situated contexts, which plow through institutions from a central node of BBL service. This model might be seen to emphasize the inter-relationality and parallel structures of the many discrete subgroups of institutions, instructors, departments, classes, and students as deliverable products for blackboard and investors.

Or do nodes exist within the context of the user experience itself, according to Spinuzzi’s three layers of scope at the individual level?  We might envision this as a network of uses and actions taken by the student, or the instructor, or the developer – however, to visualize it as a process which would include the three would be next to impossible, since the service of Blackboard Learn acts as three different tools for those three different groups.  Rather, the function of BBL acts as an expression of capital, labor, and authority, which would require the student to be able to assert authority, or labor, to leverage against the network itself (see Figure 3).

Figure 3:
Figure 3: Representation of the cyclic relationship of power, operationality, influence, and innovation in BBL networks.  There is a consistent flow of authority vertically (pictured clockwise here) downward to the student-access level.  In order for Spinuzzi’s model to function, a necessary workaround would have to exist to allow students to both participate in-network, and also modify the terms of use in such a way as to exert power or influence over BB, Inc. or introduce innovation and novel operationality to the BB software itself.  Since no such workaround is known to exist, the cycle of innovation necessary for the network to possess Spinuzzi’s “self-programming” aspect is lacking – that is to say, labor does not generate new value within the system, nor augment and transit the system itself.  All innovation, even when it is present, is site-limited.

The answer, of course, is that nodes in networks aren’t real.  The node can be each of these, or none, because the “network” of Blackboard Learn is not an actual objective network, except inasmuch as it is a collective of connected servers, code repositories, and user terminals which function to perpetuate digital information in a cloud-based software platform.  The question, according to my reading of Spinuzzi, is which model of node identification reveals fair, viable, holistic information about how users navigate and negotiate the space.  Spinuzzi would likely identify such nodes according to use cases and transit through an action-oriented process which can be traced and navigated from ideation through execution.

Similar to the question of nodes, the question of edges/relationships is inherently subjective, intentional, and desire-based.  The issue here – one of the primary assumptions necessary to function within Spinuzzi’s interpretation of genre moving through organizations, in fact – is that one must grant agency to organizations themselves, as well as to the inanimate functions of that organization’s production (Latour 1992); although interagentivity does not overtly present itself in Tracing Genres,  Spinuzzi argues for interpretations of networks both within Tracing Genres and elsewhere which would certainly require resolving these agency questions (“Genre and Generic Labor”), but which requires the subversion of the traditional divide between capital and labor in order to instead create hierarchies of labor, some informationally productive and some not.  For Spinuzzi, the edges which provide functional cohesion within the network are those which connect users with facets of the network, and which are negotiated or subverted through direct action, habituation and streamlining, rejection, modification, and the application of labor through interpretation and interrelation (43, 63).

Spinuzzi’s model would show us that networks can grow and evolve through the modification and innovation of users, but this presumes much which is true of socially- and organizationally-structured genre is also true for literal, actual networks.  Of course, this is not true.  A student can no more influence the direction of growth of Blackboard than they could physically recode the space itself.  Blackboard, as designed – and it is a human-driven, designed  platform and network – yields a correct route, and incorrect routes do not execute planned action.  As an extension of this, it is almost impossible to negotiate questions of agency within the “network” of Spinuzzi’s genre-tracing archaeology when considering Blackboard Learn.  Only through direct research of how student and instructor users of the platform navigate the space (e.g. Pretorius & van Biljon 2010) can we determine how and where such agency as might exist is limited, and where it expresses itself.


Spinuzzi’s work provides a contextual model for understanding that users engage with networks at multiple levels of intent and cognition, and his Tracing Genres creates a tripartite model for interpreting holistic information about use through the recognition of various directions of intent, agency, and movement through the networked space.  As such, his theory is seductive, both in the traditional sense of appeal and in the Baudrillardian sense of the subversion of standard hegemonic power structures.  However, Spinuzzi’s work only functions in networks and genres which allow for the presence of “back channel” solutions or definitions – or automation – where the labor of produced meaning functions through multiple venues of contribution or habituation.

This may be useful, but would not escape the question of victimhood.  Such work has been done repeatedly at this point (Mabila et al., Mathews et al., Pretorius & van Biljon), and has yielded the consistent conclusion that the network is designed to prevent open learning, introspection, or innovative practices of streamlining and habituation under designed protocols (with the possible exception of processes which would fall under the purview of “academic dishonesty,” and might warrant additional study but fall outside the purview of this argument; examples include cookie- and test-scrubbing, multiple submissions, clock-hopping, multi-tab browsing and testing, collusion, and illicit access to instructor-side course materials and management functions) (see Cluskey et al.; Vincent; and Katoch).  Various researchers’ findings have established that Blackboard does victimize users.  While Spinuzzi may be correct that the researcher is not a hero-in-waiting for the victimized user, the user may still be well and truly beset upon.

Furthermore, if one rejects the self-directed, self-contained, self-programming agency of non-human actors in networks (i.e., if one sees a reducible complexity to network relations which restrict networks to actors as agents of change, embracing action theory but not Spinuzzi’s eventual synthesis of ANT into it), then relations are still expressions of power or the abdication of power.  Given that power is an inherent facet of how access-restricted networks (i.e. hierarchic structures such as Blackboard Learn) function, content and meaning then travel through avenues of power, and are restricted by those authority-centric contexts.

What this means, finally, is that Genre Theory and genre-tracing make for interesting holistic views of the process of meaning making within the Blackboard network, but only within the highly-idealized context of the best-possible model of navigation – one in which the user has the power to subvert and habituate, and experience is designed non-agonistically.  However, Blackboard is designed agonistically, if not antagonistically; a platform cannot be designed and implemented primarily to provide authoritative knowledge and assess users’ incorporation of that knowledge in a prescriptively-graded environment and not be hostile to independent agency of meaning.

While Spinuzzi may be right to call for the death of victimhood as a U/X context, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t victims, only that we must cease to contextualize our studies through ameliorating their victim status.  We may, instead, consider how “Blackboard makes victims of us all,” not through the agency of the object, but through the presumption of agency and design where there is none – where features come into being out of a vacuum of instructional desires, and are appended into a whole which is not designed to function holistically, but modularly.

References and recommended readings:

Cluskey Jr, G. R., Ehlen, C. R., & Raiborn, M. H. (2011). Thwarting online exam cheating without proctor supervision. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, 4, 1.

Katoch, K. S. (2013)Academic Dishonesty: Issues and Challenges. Pedagogy of Learning, 1, 2.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artefacts. In W. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology—Building society (pp. 225–259). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mabila, J., Gelderblom, H., & Ssemugabi, S. (2014). Using eye tracking to investigate first year students’ digital proficiency and their use of a learning management system in an open distance environment. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education18(2), 151-163.

Mathews, M., Mitrovic, A., Lin, B., Holland, J., & Churcher, N. (2012, June). Do your eyes give it away? Using eye tracking data to understand students’ attitudes towards open student model representations. In Intelligent tutoring systems (pp. 422-427). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Pretorius, M., & van Biljon, J. (2010). Learning management systems: ICT skills, usability and learnability. Interactive Technology and Smart Education7(1), 30-43.

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Genre and Generic Labor. WRITING RESEARCH, 487.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design (Vol. 1). Mit Press.

Vincent, D. (2013). Promoting Academic Integrity in Assessment in Online Distance Learning. Technology-Mediated Learning, 40-42.


4 thoughts on “Case Study #1: “Reconsidering Blackboard Learn outside of “Victimhood” Narratives: Spinnuzi, Genre Theory, and the Reclamation of the LMS Space”

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